Friday, November 13, 2009

Showed Her Impact? That She Did

As predicted, the rogue Alaskan's apologists argue that delivering an historically safe Republican House seat in New York into Democratic hands was a great victory for Sarah Palin and the conservative movement. The Los Angeles Times, covering her new book:
[Pro-life activist Marjorie] Dannenfelser said Palin proved she is in tune with the disaffected wing of the GOP when she campaigned this month in New York for a Conservative Party congressional candidate, forcing a moderate Republican candidate to drop out. Conservative Doug Hoffman lost, but Palin showed her impact on the GOP.

Palin Had Wanted To Serve The "Dish"

Sarah Palin considered suing the Atlantic Monthly's "Daily Dish" blog because its writer, Andrew Sullivan, republished a false story about her fifth pregnancy before checking the facts. The original story, concocted by a left-wing blog based on an episode of "Desperate Housewives," accused Palin and her minor daughter of a massive coverup of Trig Palin's true parentage. Ultimately the most effective libel of the 2008 campaign, it would barely have been noticed if Sullivan hadn't given it credence by lending it his considerable reputation.

Sullivan is right that a lawsuit probably would've failed, although not for the bogus reason he offers in his post, which is basically that he should be allowed to publish lies in order to get the facts. He's still making the claim that he repeated the story only "to get at the truth of the matter." Of course a journalist does that work before running his story, not after. Still, to win against the Atlantic Monthly and Sullivan, Palin would have had to prove that his running an unverified and ultimately unverifiable story was the result of malice, which is almost impossible for a plaintiff to do.

So her decision not to sue doesn't remove Sullivan's shame. In the months since his original publication, Sullivan has assiduously kept the story alive, evidently hoping for some form of expiation, all the while arguing that bloggers operate according to different rules than reporters (except when they don't, such as when Sullivan defended a fellow blogger and called him a journalist). Whether his theory would have helped his publisher defeat a libel lawsuit will have to be tested another time an influential blogger republishes a flagrant lie without doing his job and damages the reputation of innocent people as a result.

Yorba Linda Sky

12:22 p.m.

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The Masters At Work

The Band, performing Robbie Robertson's union-skeptical "King Harvest Has Surely Come" (a rare glimpse into their Woodstock studio, filmed in 1970) and "Long Black Veil" (which is interrupted halfway through)

A Column I Didn't Even Finish Reading

How gracious of Jonah Goldberg:
Let me say up front, I don't think President Obama is to blame for the Fort Hood shootings, and I don't think it's fair to say otherwise.

Disagreement And Courtesy

Writing in the "New Republic," Harold Pollack on abortion:
Serious arguments can be made [about abortion] from many sides. Reasonable people disagree for reasons that deserve mutual respect. Pro-choice liberals must honor--though certainly not defer to--the seriousness of those who hold pro-life views. I cannot begrudge religious conservatives who seek to persuade women not to have abortions. One can oppose Roe vs. Wade without being an evil person. One can picket an abortion clinic--though not get in the face of a frightened pregnant patient--in an honorable fashion.

It would be easier to graciously acknowledge the seriousness of social conservatives if they were to grant us the same courtesy.

"Everybody Ought To Shut Up"

Though the Obama campaign was famous for its imperturbability and also its discipline when it came to dealings with the media, the Obama White House's private deliberations about an important national security question are essentially being conducted in public as weekly and sometimes daily stories are leaked purporting to represent the mind of the President and his advisers. If this is by design as far as the White House is concerned, it doesn't appeal to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former director of the CIA and a former NSC adviser in his own right. On a flight to Wisconsin yesterday, Gates said he was appalled by the leaking and hinted he would fire Pentagon leakers if he finds them (Who you gonna call?: The Plumbers). He added, "Everybody ought to just shut up."

The New York Times, which reported Gates' outburst, is also carrying this story, in which we learn that the ambassador to Afghanistan, retired Army Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, sent a cable to Washington opposing sending more U.S. troops, as requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for fear that the Afghan regime will become too dependent on the U.S. for security. It seems likely that Eikenberry, who has advanced degrees from Stanford and Harvard, is remembering the deepening of South Vietnam's dependency on the U.S. that occurred after President Ngo Dinh Diem was murdered with our acquiescence in 1962 and President Johnson massively escalated our military involvement in 1965.

As we already know, Vietnam is also on the mind of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The Times article hints that McChrystal took Eikenberry to the woodshed, getting him to soften his stance in subsequent cables. During a meeting in Kabul, according to the Times:

General McChrystal did not refer to the cable directly, but specifically challenged General Eikenberry’s conclusions, according to one official familiar with the meeting. General McChrystal, he said, said that no alternatives had been offered besides “the helicopter on the roof of the embassy,” a reference to the hasty American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975.

It's a pregnant analogy. It suggests that McChrystal fears another U.S. humiliation if we withdraw hastily and also, knowing the ruthlessness of the Taliban, that he has a pretty good idea of the fate that would likely befall anyone in Afghanistan associated with the U.S. intervention. Obviously Obama wants to avoid both that outcome as well as the kind of lavish, open-ended commitment that would essentially turn Afghanistan into a U.S. protectorate. All the news accounts make clear that this is the line he's trying to walk.

It's a fascinating challenge for a President: Believing he has the opportunity to make a discerning decision that takes Vietnam's lessons into account without being obsessed with them. One lesson he should not neglect is Lyndon Johnson's own unavailing efforts to control a fluid and unpredictable military and political environment by his daily micromanagement of the Vietnam war. Once Obama finishes agonizing, he had better get out of the way.

As I've said before, I'm glad Obama is taking his time on the policy reappraisal. But Gates is right about the leaks. They are beginning to make the President look silly and even weak. For instance:

At a National Security Council meeting on Wednesday...Mr. Obama picked up on General Eikenberry’s arguments about growing Afghan dependence, according to a senior official. The president, he said, was far more assertive than in previous sessions, pressing his advisers about the wisdom of four proposals for adding troops. The change in his tone, from listening to challenging, was palpable, officials said.

Next they'll be counting the number of times he arches his eyebrows. This sounds like a Biden dove trying to demonstrate to the press and public that the Clinton hawks are losing favor with the prince. Once I would've thought that someone authoritative was trying to signal what the President was really thinking, but it appears that the White House may just be incompetent, at least in this area. While Obama takes his responsibilities in this weightiest of matters seriously, those around him may not take them seriously enough to enable him to do his deciding, undeciding, and redeciding (as Ray Price used to say about RN) in private. For Presidents, Hamlet is not a good paradigm.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Come Home, America" Watch, Day 54

"The New Republic" helpfully graphs the experts' positions on Afghanistan policy. If you're not sure about your opinion, just borrow one of theirs!

Sing Freedom

Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl

Making Islam The Problem

Remembering speculation just a few weeks ago that anti-tax demonstrators and their media champions might spark violence on the right, Jonah Goldberg ponders the significance of the Fr. Hood massacre:

We have a real problem when much of the political and journalistic establishment is eager to jump to the conclusion that peaceful political opponents are in league with violent extremists, but is terrified to consider the possibility that violent extremists really are violent extremists if doing so means calling attention to the fact that they are Muslims.

I am more sympathetic toward this reluctance to state the truth of the matter than are some of my colleagues on the right. There is a powerful case to be made that Islamic extremism is not some fringe phenomenon but part of the mainstream of Islamic life around the world. And yet, to work from that assumption might make the assumption all the more self-fulfilling. If we act as if "Islam is the problem," as some say, we will guarantee that Islam will become the problem. But outright denial, like we are seeing today, is surely not the beginning of wisdom either.

I have no remedy for the challenge we face. But I do take some solace in George Orwell's observation that "to see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."

Sympathy With Peace And Justice

USA Today

From Woodrow Wilson's proclamation on Nov. 11, 1919, the first Armistice Day:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

2012 GOP Debacle Watch

When she seeks reelection, conservatives want to deprive Sen. Olympia Snowe of the GOP nomination. The Democrats are then likely if not certain to win the seat. GOP Chairman Michael Steele understands that a moderate Republican will do better in a state such as Maine. But does the rogue Alaskan, who helped botch a similar situation in upstate New York and ensured that the GOP would lose the formerly safe Republican seat?

"Come Home, America" Watch, Day 53

Waiting for Obama: According to the New York Times, while the Secretary of Defense is prevailing over the VP when it comes to the advisability of sending more troops to Afghanistan, the President is holding out for assurances that the Pakistani and Afghan governments will do more.

Drinking Deep At McSorley's

The imperative of making the right decision in Afghanistan is contributing to a surprising new look by experts at the endgame in Vietnam from 1973-75 -- that, plus the attention that Gen. Stanley McChrystal and other Pentagon officials are giving Lewis Sorley's book A Better War. Sorley argues that, thanks to the gains we made under President Nixon, South Vietnam might have survived if only Congress hadn't slashed non-personnel aid while it pursued Nixon over Vietnam. Sorley's book gets a respectful hearing this week from Evan Thomas in "Newsweek":
Not until Gen. Creighton Abrams replaced Gen. William Westmoreland as U.S. commander in 1968 did the Americans smarten up and begin to fight a true counterinsurgency, focusing on protecting the population by a strategy of "clear and hold." Instead of shoving aside the South Vietnamese Army, Abrams built up the local forces until they could stand and fight largely on their own-as they did in 1972, repulsing North Vietnam's Easter Offensive with the aid of American airstrikes.

But by then, as Sorley was too late. American public opinion had turned. In 1973, President Nixon and the North Vietnamese signed a peace treaty that allowed Hanoi to keep 150,000 troops in South Vietnam, just waiting on orders to march. In 1974, breaking Nixon's promises of continued support to Saigon, the U.S. Congress cut off all aid to South Vietnam. Without logistical support or air cover, the South Vietnamese Army collapsed in 1975 and the communists swept into Saigon. Sorley quotes one of General Abrams's closest colleagues, Gen. Bruce Palmer, as saying that Abrams "died [of cancer in 1974] feeling that we could have won the war. He felt we were on top of it in 1971, then lost our way." Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador to Saigon who worked with Abrams to turn the war around, felt the same: "We eventually defeated ourselves," Bunker said.
Of course those May 1972 air strikes didn't materialize out of the thin air over Hanoi. They were ordered at considerable political risk by Richard Nixon. He did it again as peace talks faltered in December, generating heat among congressional opponents that made the Watergate firestorm the following year burn hotter than it would have otherwise. As Thomas notes, some historians dispute whether Nixon and Abrams could really have saved South Vietnam if Watergate hadn't occurred or Congress hadn't interfered. But does anyone really think the U.S. and South Vietnam couldn't have defeated Hanoi under any circumstances? Evans writes:
[T]he revisionists' view of Vietnam does shed some light on the issues facing Obama about war leadership. The most surprising guidance Vietnam may have to offer is not that wars of this kind are unwinnable-which is clearly the common wisdom in America-but that they can produce victories if presidents resist the temptation to fight wars halfway or on the cheap. As President Eisenhower liked to say, if you fight, "you must fight to win."
In an accompanying "Newsweek" article, Sen. John Kerry, former head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, firmly rebukes the revisionists, though even he adds, with a nod in Sorley's direction:
Yes, we adopted smarter tactics near the end, but by then the die was cast.
From grudging concessions such as these may well come a new appreciation of Richard Nixon as commander-in-chief.

Brando And Murray, Together At Last

Your mind will boggle at how many words rhyme with "ass."

Hat tip to

Can You Hear Them Now?

The Brill Building, on Broadway near Times Square, was headquarters for legendary songwriters such as Bacharach and David, Leiber and Stoller ("Yakety Yak"), Ellie Greenwich ("River Deep Mountain High," with Phil Specter), and Doc Pomus ("Save The Last Dance For Me," with Mort Shuman). More about the Brill Building sound here. Music bud Gary Baker (above) and I stopped by on Sunday, at the end of our musical pilgrimage. All we could hear outside the historic doorway (though artists were usually instructed to use the side entrance) was the sound of Manhattan traffic -- but hey, that's what inspired George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Gary and I talked politics during the 17 minutes we weren't talking about music, family, and faith. When I shared that I didn't much care who gave money to politicians or in what amounts so long as voters are fully informed about it and pay close attention, he recommended Drop by and see who calls the tune for your local officials.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Nazareth Songs: "The Weight" (1968)

Levon Helm and his Midnight Ramble band, plus John Hiatt, performing earlier this year at the Ryman auditorium in Nashville

Yorba Linda Sky

5:30 p.m.

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Wearing Green On Sundays

What constitutes genuine religious belief? An English judge applies a five-fold test and decides that being environmentally minded qualifies.

Baby Steps To The Promised Land

Experts' consensus on the Obama administration's Middle East efforts so far: Amateur hour, beginning with the U.S. demand for a West Bank settlements freeze. New plan: Back to baby steps.

Hat tip to Mike Cheever

Not Bedfellows At All?

Nixon and Kissinger vs. Haig, Rumsfeld, and Cheney? Very interesting indeed. Len Colodny sent me this "Library Journal" review by Stephen K. Shaw of his new book, The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, From Nixon To Obama:
Colodny (coauthor, Silent Coup) and [Tom] Shachtman (Airlift to America), two experienced investigative reporters, offer a rigorous and critical examination of the neoconservative movement and the bureaucratic, ideological battles over American foreign policy from 1969 to 2009.

During this period, there was infighting, primarily in Republican administrations, between pragmatists, e.g., Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and ideologues, e.g., Alexander Haig, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, for the privilege of conducting foreign policy and establishing American supremacy in world affairs.

Central to this account of the origins and evolution of crusading conservatives and ideologically driven theorists, such as the mysterious, influential Pentagon operative Fritz Kraemer, is a focus on the domestic and international prospects and perils of a foreign, military-driven policy that has sought to re-create the world in America's image. The authors essentially direct our attention to John Quincy Adams's advice that his country should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

VERDICT: Anyone who has read Jane Mayer's The Dark Side or Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency would be well served by this captivating chronicle. Highly recommended, especially for students of U.S. foreign policy and/or presidential politics in the post-World War II era.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bent Ears

Levon Helm patted Gary and me on the knee when he arrived on stage for his set last night and patted me on the back when he left. Such incarnational moments are surely the stuff of pilgrimages. After he'd given us a big smile, I was so transfigured that I couldn't have cared less about anything else that might have happened. But as a matter of fact, the Band's legendary singer and drummer barely opened his mouth during his two and a half-hour concert last night in his Woodstock studio. A throat cancer survivor, he's still recovering from another scare last summer, when a non-cancerous lesion was removed from his throat.

While he's not yet singing as he works with his vocal coach to get back in shape, he's drumming as powerfully as ever. He powered his 12-piece show band from the right end of the stage, counting four by standing, waving his drumsticks in the air, and mouthing the words. There were plenty of lead vocalists to take up the slack, including his daughter Amy, Teresa Williams and her husband, guitarist Larry Campbell (storied performers in their own right), and, sitting in last night, roadhouse pianist David Keyes, who got to sing this classic Robbie Robertson lyric on "Across The Great Divide":

Standing by your window in pain
A pistol in y
our hand
And I beg you, dear Molly girl

Try and unders
tand your man the best you can...
Now Molly dear, don't ya shed a tear
Your time will surely come

You'll feed your man chicken every Sunday
Now tell me, hon, whatcha done with the gun?

Helm and his band performed five more Band songs -- "Long Black Veil," a country standard which appeared on their "Music From Big Pink," plus "The Shape I'm In," "It Makes No Difference," "Chest Fever," and "The Weight." Songwriter and guitarist Robertson wasn't there, and Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, the group's two best voices besides Helm, died early. All this Band music, but no Band voices? Nobody cared. Nobody cares if it isn't John Wesley singing the hymns he wrote, either.

Robertson is said to have been unappreciative of the Helm-Danko-Manuel-Garth Hudson iterations of the Band that performed without him in the 1980-90s. I guess I can't blame him in view of the fairly showy "goodbye to the road" the Band paid in the film "The Last Waltz." Still, I hope Robertson brings his famous Fender to the Midnight Ramble one time to see how the congregation is doing with his hymns, the classic songs that have entered the canon of American New Orleans-influenced R&B songwriting.

In addition to Band songs, we heard Delta peaches such as Dr. John's "Such A Night," the boisterous "All On A Mardi Gras Day," and "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." The Ramble was in Woodstock without being especially redolent of the Woodstock festival, which was more famous for the Who and Jimi Hendrix than for proto-roots music such as the Band's, whose members looked like Mennonites, not acid rockers. The Band played the festival but didn't especially enjoy it. Nor did a certain other Americana band from San Francisco. Bad weather during their set killed the Grateful Dead's spotlights, so nobody saw them. Literally. They said they'd never played worse.

Appropriately enough, Helm's ensemble has its own links to the greater Dead family, Williams and Campbell having recently toured with Dead bassist Phil Lesh. We heard two Dead songs last night: "Tennessee Jed," which Helm recorded on his new album "Electric Dirt," and the Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia collaboration "Attics Of My Life." Here the evening waxed from joyful to sublime, with Williams, Amy Helm, and Campbell singing Hunter's gorgeous lyrics, as the Dead themselves did on their album "American Beauty," in luminous harmony:

I have spent my life
Seeking all that's still unsung

Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes to see

When there were no strings to play

You played to me

Oh regret, oh grace -- oh, baby boomers! We listened in rapt silence to that aching old song, we men and women of a certain age huddled together in a cozy barn, mostly in our fifties and sixties, though there were a few younger people who'd said they learned about the music from their parents. Welcomed with an easy hospitality by Team Levon, which had lit the muddy parking lot with fragrant stove fires and invited us to bring dishes for a common buffet table, we felt like we were going over to an old friend's house. We sipped beer and wine from red plastic cups they'd provided (we were asked to keep the liquor bottles in our cars) and traded stories about concerts we'd seen, albums we'd loved, sights we'd seen around town. Except in church, which comes with a common vocabulary just like rock and roll, I've rarely bonded so easily with strangers. It felt like going to a show when we were 19.

But we weren't 19. Most of our children won't see 19 again. It might just have been a nostalgia trip, but as one of the passengers, I'm looking for a better word than that. It had something to do with the curtain beginning to come down on a storied if self-absorbed generation and trying to savor and honor people and things and memories we love, trying to discern what's really precious and then find the words to explain it.

One of the things I love is the Band's live version of the Motown song "Don't Do It," recorded at the Academy of Music in New York City on New Year's Eve in 1971. Levon Helm sings lead. It's lean, sharp as an icicle, almost explosively powerful. That long-ago night in New York was the first time the Band had worked with a horn section. Howard Johnson, who'd played with Charles Mingus and later led the Saturday Night Live band, played tuba and baritone sax. The horns helped make "Don't Do It" a masterpiece. Near the end, Helm and the late Rick Danko take this line as Helm plays a complicated drum pattern which you're amazed he can hold together while singing: "My biggest mistake was loving you too much." Then Johnson and the rest of the horns come back in with a mighty roar.

I'd be surprised if I've heard the song fewer than 1,000 times in the course of nearly 40 years. If I could have just one song, I'd be content with "Don't Do It." As it happened, Howard Johnson also anchored the horn section last night at the Midnight Ramble. After the show, he walked out behind Helm, and I touched him on the shoulder and said, "Thank you. God bless you." He smiled and said, "Thank you." Perhaps presumptuous of me, definitely gracious of him. I felt like I was thanking him for all the music I'd ever loved.

Mix 'Em, Match 'Em

Grand Central Station, New York City, 6:35 p.m.

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